I've been designing games for a long time, I don't have many published but I have designed a lot.
One question I often get is, "what do you do first, pick a theme or design a mechanic?" I hope to use this article to answer that question.
Theme vs. mechanics is one of those "chicken and the egg" type arguments. Where should you start?
Should you settle on a theme such as "feeding pigeons in a park" or should you build the mechanic "resource allocation based board game" first and slap a theme on it later?
To answer this question let me begin by talking about a game that I currently have on the market published by Kenzer & Company: Tech Support.
Tech Support is a game where I had the theme first and then built a mechanic to go with it.
See, I work in telecom and I often deal with customers who have questions about their services or need help troubleshooting a problem. I'm not a worker on a phone bank but I know enough of these people to know the jokes involved. So I set out to make a humorous game about calling a Tech Support hotline for help.
I went with a card based game as I wanted it to be a "beer and pretzels" style of game, which it is.
Being a card game I needed a way to build a deck so that only one player could win the game. At the same time I needed to be sure it wasn't a case of drawing a card from the deck and saying, "I win" as that would be anti-climatic and make for a very dull game. Nope, if I wanted to play a game like that I'd just add a joker to my deck of cards, deal them out, and call the player who gets the joker the winner, but that would be pointless.
Right away I knew my core mechanic would need to relate to calling a call center, thus was born the idea of playing "blind." Now, that does not mean everyone closes their eyes when playing, what it means is that the cards you will be playing will be unknown to you.
Now that also sounds rather boring, a game where you just play cards randomly with no knowledge of what they are? Just grab the joker and play that game...
This is where I threw in the twist. Though you *may* not know what card you are about to play, the other players do.
That's right, the other players have some knowledge of what card you are about to play but you do not. Now, this is not a case of holding your hand of cards so you only see the backs, nope, this is about calling a Tech Support system so you are playing off of your opponents hands of cards.
What this means in game terms is that the cards in your own hand are almost worthless to you. Now, I say "almost worthless" because there is a way to play the cards in your hand it's just not easy.
So, now we have a theme and a an outline for a mechanic, but where does the game go from here?
I set out, at this point, to design the cards to do something while keeping their theme. To do this I thought of all of the various things that happen at call centers and matching them up with an in game effect.
For example: the goal of calling a Tech Support system is to get the answer to your question. This comes about by talking to someone who knows how to fix your problem. In game terms this is the winning card and he is called the Guru.
Because you can't (for the most part) use cards that are in your own hand you need to get this card out of your hand and into someone else's hand, but how do we do that?
We build the rest of the cards into "hand manipulation" cards. This in turn allows you to move cards from hand to hand which then allows you some strategizing to get that Guru card into someone else's hand so *you* can play it.
For example: there is a card called, "No, you want our West Coast Division" which allows you to pick two players to swap hands. If you are one of those two players then you have just figured out where a lot of the cards in the game now sit.
There is also a reset style card called "Disconnected" which sends all the cards back into the deck to be re-shuffled and new hands dealt out.
OK, so now we have the theme, the core mechanics and a way to win, but how do we play the game?
Because playing the Guru card is the goal of all the players we need a way to set a limit on the game so it does not take all night. We do this by *never* shuffling the discard pile into the draw pile. The deck is only ever gone through once per game.
Well, what happens if no one draws the Guru card and the deck runs out? Why the player with the Guru card in their hand wins as they have succeeded in thwarting all of the callers, which makes them a winner!
Another key element in the game's design is that all players start with five cards in their hands but only draw one on their turn. This means there will always be a set total amount of cards in everyone's hands. If you play with four players there will be a total of 20 cards in play between turns.
What this also means is that you can pick on one player and drain their hand of all cards. This can be a very good strategy if you hold the Guru in your hand as you want as many cards in your hand so it will be harder for your opponents to draw the Guru from you.
At it's heart, Tech Support is a hand-manipulation game with a lot of bluffing thrown in. That may not appeal to some gamers but, to those looking for a quick filler game, it can easily hit the spot.
Stay tuned for part two where I look at a game that was designed with mechanics in mind first.